One man’s fight to preserve the past

Becraft mourns the loss of meaningful memories

Wednesday, March 8, 2006

Click here to enlarge this photo
Brian Lewis⁄The Gazette
Leonard Becraft, whose family roots date back more than 200 years in Montgomery County, decries the changes to the community that he fears will substantially erase its history. He is pictured in Brookeville, where an old house sits next to brand-new construction.

The view from Leonard Becraft’s living room has changed over the years.

The new ‘‘McMansion” perched just beyond his animal pens and rolling hills is a constant reminder of the transformation occurring throughout the community and the county, leaving Becraft and likely many other ‘‘old-timers” mourning the past.

‘‘Life as we know it is about to end,” the 67-year-old Brookeville resident said. ‘‘I feel like a tidal wave is coming, and the older families have no control to stop it.”

Becraft’s ancestors arrived in Maryland in 1673 and began establishing strong roots throughout Montgomery County more than 200 years ago.

Although he was born in Beltsville, he has spent most of his life in Brookeville. Leonard was among several generations of the Becraft family to live in Greenwood, a stately historic home located on Georgia Avenue. The home is no longer in his family.

In 1980, he and his wife Betty purchased the farm and brick rambler in which they now reside from his uncle. They operated a farm market on New Hampshire Avenue in Cloverly for 20 years, but retired a few years ago because of traffic problems.

‘‘We grew tomatoes, beans and squash, but now we have narrowed our operation,” he said. ‘‘Ours was one of the oldest continually operating farm markets in the county.”

Farming was an omnipresent way of life in the greater Olney community for many generations.

His roots are deep

Ancestors arrived in Maryland in 1673 Family has lived in Montgomery more than 200 years Operated family farm market for 20 years

‘‘There used to be a lot of farms around here, like the Becrafts, the Riggses and the Davises,” he said. ‘‘Now there is only one big farm family left — the Stablers. I don’t know how long that operation will continue with the pressure.”

The farmers are subdividing under the Rural Neighborhood Cluster zone, allowing large homes to be built on small lots. Becraft feels the area deserves 5-acre zoning.

He is worried that increased traffic and development are causing little bits of historic significance to slip away.

Many concerns

Becraft was on the Town of Brookeville’s Bicentennial Committee in 1994, and said he worked towards getting the town its historic status.

All the more reason, perhaps, why he is concerned that town leaders are allowing the character of Brookeville to change. Several new homes are already built, with more planned.

The town recently received a $1,500 grant from the Historic Preservation Commission to clean up the site of the former Thomas Mill, located on the east side of town. That disturbs Becraft because ‘‘they’re building a new home right there, and the driveway runs right up between the miller’s house and the millrace.”

‘‘They want to use tax dollars to restore the mill,” he added ‘‘yet they are allowing a new house to be built right there.”

Becraft said that when President James Madison fled to Brookeville during the War of 1812, his troops surrounded the Caleb Bentley home where he sought refuge, now known as the Madison House. Since the Thomas Mill is adjacent to the Madison House, Becraft thinks the whole property should be preserved to the state it was in nearly two centuries ago.

He is also concerned with the redevelopment of the former Silo Inn site on Georgia Avenue in Olney.

Higgins Tavern, which dates back to the early 1800s, sits on the property that is slated to become a shopping center. The developer, Finmarc Management, has recently cleared the debris from the dilapidated structure, and is seeking permission to remove portions of the home that were added later during its ‘‘non-significant” period as a dwelling. The developer does not want to raze the part of the structure that served as the tavern.

That doesn’t make Becraft feel better.

To Becraft, whose relative Lurainer Becraft married James Higgins, nothing about the structure is ‘‘non-significant.”

‘‘It has significance as a toll-collecting place along the Brookeville Turnpike, as a place for lodging, and later as a dairy,” he said. ‘‘The county just paid money to buy Uncle Tom’s Cabin, and Higgins Tavern has significance, as well.”

Becraft is concerned that newcomers may not understand the significance of such structures, and they are the ones pushing for development.

‘‘The older folks have died off and the younger people have moved in,” he said. ‘‘They may not be fully aware of the historical background, but are instead looking for modern conveniences.”

He feels that protecting Higgins Tavern is only ‘‘the tip of the iceberg.”

‘‘You’re going to have the ICC right below it,” he said.

Becraft is also concerned about the traffic on Route 108 between Olney and Ashton, and feels that proposed development in the Sandy Spring and Ashton communities will put more pressure on already congested roads, possibly leading to widening the road.

‘‘They’ve taken out the oak trees in front of the bank, they’ve built new homes so close to Route 108, and they have disturbed the peacefulness of the Friends Meeting House,” he said, referring to sites in Sandy Spring. ‘‘It’s hard to get out from the Sandy Spring Museum or Brooke Road, so they will probably have to put in traffic lights, which is just going to clog up Sandy Spring.”

He said he lived through the changes in Olney and now feels that Sandy Spring and Ashton are headed in the same direction.

‘‘In the 1970s we were promised that Olney would be a satellite community, and it didn’t work out that way,” he said. ‘‘The locals were sold a bill of goods and now we are faced with the same situation.”

Road ‘‘improvements” may have impacts on historic structures in Sunshine, as well, he said.

Right-turn lanes are scheduled to be added to the intersection of New Hampshire and Georgia avenues, and Becraft is concerned that his church, Mount Carmel United Methodist, which dates back to 1808 and sits at the southwest corner of the crossroads, may be impacted. Remains of a wheelwright and an undertaker’s shop on the southeast corner may also be at risk.

Becraft is also a member of a coalition to protect burial sites. He is concerned that the local cemeteries are not being cared for.

‘‘A slab was moved at the Bowie cemetery, the stones are broken and the monument is hidden by boxwoods at Greenwood, and the Riggs cemetery is overgrown,” he said, referring to small, local burial sites.

Becraft is also discouraged that older communities are losing their identity.

Several years ago, the Brookeville Post Office was relocated further north on Georgia Avenue, and Becraft feels that when that happened the communities of Sunshine, Unity, Ashton, Brighton and Brinklow lost their identities.

Recently, the former Brinklow Post Office was demolished to make way for a new housing community on New Hampshire Avenue.

‘‘They didn’t even give it a Brinklow name,” he said. ‘‘They are calling it Ashton Reserve, and it’s not even in Ashton.”

Farther north on New Hampshire Avenue, a huge oak tree in front of the home known as Gittings Ha Ha was recently cut down to the ground.

Becraft said that when he called to inquire about the tree, he was told that it was 20 percent dead — which in his mind meant 80 percent alive.

The stump sits on the side of the road, several feet in diameter. For Becraft, it is yet one more reminder of the past that is now gone and cannot be recovered.

Passion for history

Becraft’s passion for history comes deep from within. He has spent countless hours studying his lineage as well as local history.

As a farmer, he always had more free time in the winter. Over the years, he has spent those months visiting libraries and courthouses across the state and conducting interviews to gather as much information as possible.

While Betty Becraft works in the kitchen baking goodies for a benefit luncheon held in honor of a Unity family who recently lost its home to a fire, Leonard wanders down to his basement.

A sign reading ‘‘Leonard’s History Room” is posted on the door of the small room.

The room contains an extensive collection of documents and photographs. Artifacts, ranging from farm tools to glass bottles and leather shoes, are carefully displayed on shelves or in a glass case.

Leonard said he is often told he should write a book, but admits he wouldn’t know where to begin sorting through the information he has obtained over the years.

Although a book might never get written, one thing is for sure: Leonard Becraft imparts a passion for the history of the community that ‘‘newcomers” might never know.